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Healthy Picnic Food

Planning the Perfect Picnic in the Park

Warm weather and long weekends mean spending time outdoors. What better way to enjoy all that nature has to offer than going on a picnic? July is National Picnic Month as well as National Recreation and Parks Month, and it’s also the month where we celebrate foods like blueberries, watermelon, hot dogs, baked beans, and ice cream. In other words, July is made for picnicking. Here are some tips on how to plan the perfect summer picnic in the park.

Picnic in the Park Ideas

Fresh air, the warmth of the sun, and a great view – there’s nothing quite like dining outdoors. Too often, deciding where to go is the biggest challenge to getting picnic plans going. Thankfully, it’s not so hard anymore – even the most urban of areas have pockets of nature that are easy to find!

The National Wildlife Federation’s Nature Find map is a terrific resource that helps you find outdoor areas and events in your area. By simply typing in your zip code or your city and state, you are provided with a list of outdoor options on a map, complete with a description, address, contact information, reviews, details, and any upcoming events. It’s even available as a free iPhone app, so you can plan an impromptu picnic whenever, wherever!

For those who want a more immersive picnic experience, the National Park Service’s Find a Park site can help you choose a national park to picnic in based on name, location, activity, and even topic (including battlefields, caves, geysers, waterfalls, and wildflowers, just to name a few). Many national parks are surprisingly close by and offer day-use areas for short visits, and for those who want to stay longer, what’s camping but an extended picnic?

And who says you can’t picnic while traveling? Popular summer travel destinations are often home to iconic picnic spots – a short escape during your great escape.

Headed to New York? Then Central Park is likely on your list of must-sees. Why not pack or pick up a picnic lunch and people-watch for a while? Across the water, Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn offers an incredible view of the bridge and the Manhattan skyline, as well as the Statue of Liberty from a distance, from the Pier 6 lawn.

Want to picnic right under the noses of some of our greatest presidents? Take your basket to Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota.

The National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. allows you to sit amongst works of art as you enjoy your picnic. The garden even hosts free jazz concerts on Friday evenings, from 5:00 – 8:30, May through August.

A short drive from southern California’s many beaches, Los Angeles’s Griffith Park provides an up-close view of the Hollywood sign, and you can look down on the entire city as you picnic by the observatory.

No matter your location or destination, it’s easy to find a picnic site that suits your needs.

Easy, Healthy Picnic Foods

Traditional picnic foods, while tasty, are generally bad for our health. However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t still enjoy those familiar foods. All we need to do is lighten them up.

Tip 1: Instead of the usual coleslaw and potato salad dressings, use vinaigrettes. Mayonnaise-based salads are high in fat and bacteria-friendly. Dressings made with acidic ingredients such as vinegar or fruit juices both cut fat and keep food safer. You can also substitute broccoli slaw and use smaller, colorful potatoes with the skins on – yellow, purple, orange (sweet potatoes), and red – for more phytonutrients and fiber.

Tip 2: In place of carb-heavy pasta salads, prepare chopped vegetable salads the night before the picnic. This will not only save time – it will allow the flavors to develop, resulting in a tastier salad. Add beans for more fiber. Herbs, nuts, and dried fruits can also jazz them up.

Tip 3: Replace meat with a meaty Portobello mushroom. An entire Portobello mushroom has around 30 calories, 0.17g of fat, 4.3g of carbs, 2.1g of protein, and is cholesterol-free. By comparison, a 3 oz. hamburger patty has 235 calories, 16g of fat, and 76mg of cholesterol.

Tip 4: Instead of chips, pack a raw veggie platter with carrots, cucumbers, celery, cherry tomatoes, and other crisp vegetables. You can dip them in hummus, salsa, or low-fat yogurt dip for all the crunch and flavor without the fat and calories.

Tip 5: Wraps are a great substitute for burgers and sandwiches. They tend to have fewer calories than two slices of bread, and they are easy to eat on the go. Fill them with vegetables, lean meats, and skip the mayo. Dijon mustard, salsa, or light dressings are more flavorful and lighter in calories.

Tip 6: Cold roast chicken is healthier and more delicious than cold fried chicken. Not only can you remove the skin from roast chicken, the roasting process allows garlic and herb aromas to penetrate the meat better, resulting in richer flavor.

Tip 7: Skip the sugary beverages and fill the cooler with water, sparkling water, and unsweetened ice tea. If alcohol is a must, go for light beer and wine spritzers as they have fewer calories and are more refreshing in the heat.

Tip 8: Many fruits are at their peak during summer, so enjoy fruit for dessert. Skip the shortcake and enjoy berries at their ripest. Bite into a sweet, juicy peach. A nice, refreshing slice of watermelon can also be the perfect end to a meal.

Picnic Food Safety

Unfortunately, many of our favorite picnic foods (meats, poultry, dairy products, eggs, egg-based condiments like mayonnaise, etc.) are also bacteria-friendly, and food sitting out in the sun only encourages rapid growth. So how do we minimize the risk of food-borne illness?

Keep the cooler or basket at or below 40°F. The "Danger Zone” – the point where bacteria in food can multiply rapidly - is between 40° F and 140° F.

Don’t leave food out. Food shouldn’t be left out for more than two hours, or one hour when outdoor temperatures are above 90° F. Keep your basket or cooler in the shade, if possible. When serving, place the serving bowl in a larger bowl filled with ice to keep the food cool, drain the water as the ice melts, replenish the ice frequently, and return what is left to the cooler immediately.

Wash your hands before and after handling food. If picnicking at a location without a restroom or running water, use antibacterial moist towelettes or hand sanitizer to make sure the food is handled by clean hands.

Use a food thermometer to check the temperature of grilled meats. It’s difficult to know whether meat is completely cooked based on appearance alone. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website has a handy chart on safe minimum cooking temperatures for a variety of meats – print out a copy and take it with you as a reference.

Don’t cross-contaminate. Don’t reuse plates and utensils for cooked food after they have been used for raw food. Always use a clean plate and utensils to prevent bacteria from uncooked food transferring to cooked food. Also, pack foods carefully so that the juices from raw meat, poultry, and seafood do not contaminate other foods such as fruits and vegetables that will be eaten raw.

Pack separate coolers for different items. Pack drinks in one cooler and food in another. The beverage cooler is generally opened more frequently, so by packing separate coolers, you can prevent food from being exposed to warm air repeatedly.

Keep the coolers closed. Opening the coolers only when necessary will help keep the contents cooler, longer.

Wash fruits and vegetables before packing. You never know if there will be a clean place to prepare your food at the picnic site, so clean your produce before the picnic. Pressed for time? Consider purchasing packaged fruits and veggies labeled "ready-to-eat," "washed," or "triple washed" instead.

Picnic People Safety

Now that you know where to visit and what foods to bring, don’t forget to make sure that you, your family and friends stay safe while picnicking. Here’s a few more tips.

Don’t forget the sunscreen. Any time you spend time in the sun, remember to wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least 30 SPF and reapply as needed, especially if you are in the water or perspiring.

Stay hydrated. Don’t forget to drink lots of water. Being active and outdoors during the summer can be dangerous if you don’t replenish your fluids. Sodas, juices, and alcoholic beverages are not good for hydration, so don’t forget the water. Also, don’t exert yourself if it’s too hot; if you begin to feel dizzy, nauseous, fatigued, or cramped, recognize that these may be symptoms of heat exhaustion and seek appropriate help.

Pack a first-aid kid. In case you run into some picnic-unfriendly plants such as poison oak or poison ivy, some cortisone cream may come in handy. Splinters and thorns are not uncommon in the great outdoors, so tweezers and some antiseptic wipes can be useful. Band-aids for cuts and scrapes are also good to have around.

Keep an eye on children. With all the hustle and bustle in a wide, open space, it’s easy to lose sight of little picnickers. Make sure you always know where your children are and what they’re doing, so that they can enjoy a safe, fun picnic experience.

Keep an eye on pets. Picnics are also great opportunities for us to spend outdoor time with our pets. Always exercise caution by making sure your pets stay in the picnic area (in accordance with leash laws) and at a safe distance from unfamiliar animals and people. Make sure shots and parasite protection (fleas, ticks, mosquitos) are up-to-date, as pets can be exposed to a variety of diseases and parasites while outdoors. Watch pets carefully so they do not eat something that can make them sick – from your basket or elsewhere – and continuously check to see that they have enough water. They need to stay hydrated, too!

Picnic Activities

There’s more to picnicking than eating. Being outdoors means picnickers can and should be active. At parks, baseball, badminton, soccer and touch or flag football are popular picnic sports. At the beach, you can play Frisbee, volleyball, surf, or go for a swim. Other picnic activities can include croquet, horseshoes, shuffleboard, bocce ball, bean bag toss, ladder toss, and even chess or checkers. Depending on where you are, you may even be able to hike, row, or climb. The key is to have a variety of activities that picnickers of all ages and ability levels can enjoy.

Picnic Checklist

To ensure that you don’t forget anything for your picnic, here’s a checklist of the food & drinks, tableware, tidying-up and other items you’ll need to bring.

For Food and Drinks

  • A basket, cooler, or other suitable container to transport food.
  • Bags of ice and ice packs to help keep food cold and to use for drinks.
  • A thermometer so you can check the temperature of food, especially if grilling.
  • A variety of drinks, but don’t forget to pack plenty of water!
  • Condiments such as ketchup and mustard, and seasonings like salt and pepper.


  • Plates, cups, and bowls. Reusable serveware can make a picnic feel more elegant, but you can also use mason jars, takeout containers, or disposable serveware depending on the theme.
  • Napkins, cloth or paper.
  • Utensils and serving utensils such as spoons, forks, knives, and tongs. When transporting knives, always take care to cover the blade with a guard or wrap it carefully with a thick kitchen towel.
  • A cutting board for bread, cheese, meat, or fruits and vegetables.
  • A bottle opener and a corkscrew for soda, beer, and wine.
  • Clean containers and zip bags are great for transporting leftovers.


  • Don’t forget to bring trash bags to clean up after the picnic. Some picnic areas do not have trash receptacles because of animals, so making sure you leave nothing behind should be a priority.
  • A roll of paper towels can help clean up spills, do double-duty as napkins, and can be used to clean containers and utensils before repacking.
  • Moist towelettes are a lifesaver when picnicking in areas where the restrooms are far or nonexistent. They can be used to clean hands before handling food, as well as after eating. Drop some food on your shirt? Use one to blot the stain.

Other Items

  • A folding blanket or mat big enough for all the picnickers to sit on and enjoy.
  • An umbrella or even a portable shade structure can be useful at protecting you from the heat and sun exposure when picnicking at the beach or at a park with little shade.
  • Folding chairs can make picnics more comfortable, especially for those who experience back pain.
  • If you’re picnicking at the beach, in the mountains, or in the desert, bring warmer clothes as the weather can suddenly cool once the sun sets.
  • Sports gear or games can provide active entertainment both before and after eating.
  • A good book read while lying in the grass is both relaxing and fun.
  • Don’t forget the camera! A few shots will capture memories for a lifetime.

Now that you know where to go, what to pack, what to do, and how to keep your picnic safe, grab your basket and go! With these tips, you’re sure to get the most out of your summer picnics!

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